After 12 years of primary and secondary schooling in South Africa I was missing one crucial skill, the ability to speak a second language. I was not the most studious language learner at school but I’ve always had a deep fascination with languages. Language, I believe is not simply a means for inter person communication but a window into culture, history, and a different frame from which one can think and perceive the world. Languages differ from one another in so many ways. There are technical differences such as grammar and pronunciation but also differences in feeling through rhythm, pace, even facial expressions and body language all of which affect expression and our ability to understand and be understood.
South Africa has 11 official languages including English. Learning a second language is compulsory and which are offered as options to primary school kids depends on where they are in the country. I believe very few people leave the schooling system with a reasonable level of proficiency. Unlike English with IELTS or Mandarin with HSK there are no established testing standards. A high grade on a high school final is still not tantamount to an ability to speak. Although all the official languages are equal in theory, that is not practically true. In my experience, English is easily given the highest priority followed by Afrikaans. This is of course has a lot to do with the world we live in and South Africa’s history. Living in our major cities one might be led to believe English is the lingua franca but I’ve heard on several occasions that the most widely spoken language in my beloved country is Afrikaans.
I started learning Afrikaans and Zulu in primary school. By high school I was allowed to focus on one, or perhaps more correctly abandon one of the, then unpleasant, language courses. Midway through I had an epiphany. The competent speakers in my Zulu class had all been speaking Zulu since childhood and those of us dependent on learning in class were still fumbling. My high school had only a single Zulu teacher such was the low demand for learning it in comparison to Afrikaans. There could be many reasons for this but I suspect a lot had to the do with content available in Afrikaans and the some surface similarities to English. I saw a future where I might not being able to pass a Zulu final exam and opted to switch back to Afrikaans in the hope that I could catch up. I didn’t. I barely passed the final exam despite doing well in all my other subjects. I was left with the impression that I was simply bad at language. Some people believe they are bad at math or science, perhaps I simply was not built for learning language and it’s always easier to believe there are reasons beyond one’s control for their poor performance.
Oddly, although I couldn’t follow along terribly well in my Afrikaans classes I spent countless afternoons and weekends consuming Japanese anime, refusing to watch any English dubbed content. The high concept science fiction may have been the most appealing part but there was something about viewing the content as the creators intended that I felt shouldn’t be altered. I loved listening to Japanese and found myself picking up many little phrases as well as a few common verbs. I loved and still love the Japanese language, but I certainly wasn’t restricted to it. I found that I loved foreign language cinema which became a staple of my movie watching habits early on. At present I’ve watched more of the Oscar Academy Best Foreign Language film winners and nominees than I have any other category including Best Picture.
My mother speaks all 11 official languages in South Africa. I have watched and listened with awe as she effortlessly switches between languages. English, she is quick to remind me if I dare correct her grammar, is her eighth language. Her mother tongue is Shangaan, a language I only know but a handful of words. My father only spoke English and worked late, couple that with my mother’s wish that my brother and I be able to communicate fluently with the world and we were only spoken to, and thus only speak, English. All members of my maternal side of the family are all at least bilingual but so many languages are spoken at family gatherings the base might be higher.
It is with great regret that I don’t speak Shangaan. I was never able to speak to my grandmother in her mother tongue. She spoke English but I always had the impression that that there were aspects of her I never knew. Shangaan, I’m told, contains many idioms and they are a part of speech I very much enjoy. Even without the family connection I would probably enjoy learning Shangaan and it’s idioms. I would’ve loved to know which were my grandmother’s favourites.
However, not all is lost. Despite not being spoken to in Shangaan or anything other than English, my mum could not escape her identity. I am left with many little light touches of the language, in particular with involuntary sounds and expressions relating to surprise. I like these a lot because I feel one can do little about them. I have many friends who speak English as a second language but should you give any a fright or sufficiently anger them, their mother tongues surface in spectacular fashion. I can curse more confidently in Finnish than I can greet.
It is this fascination with language that helped bring me to China. I think from the outside, especially from the viewpoint of the West, it is easy to underestimate how different and how incredible China is. It is a mistake to think of China only in regard to it’s size and manufacturing prowess for it is to misunderstand the vast breadth and depth of the history and culture of the nation. Not to digress, but did you that China has 5000 years of history? How old is your country in comparison? What do you think Chinese food tastes like? I bet your description matches just one of eight famous cuisines that aren’t even the sum total of all available options. For a native english speaker and lover of language Mandarin is a great choice because it is so completely different. Differences of course make the language more interesting and enticing to learn. A new writing system that doesn’t have an alphabet or syllabary? The language really couldn’t grab my interest more. Of course, it is also very difficult and after a almost a year of learning even though I’ve made great progress, I can see that the road is going to be a long one. One I will add, that I’m loving traveling along.
It is here and now with the realisation that Mandarin is my second language that I’ve been wondering about the second languages I lost along the way. As an adult learner I’m able and also expected to approach my language learning with a level of seriousness I never reached at as child. However, I also can’t help but think that I’ve been taught much better this time around. To be clear, I don’t mean this as a slight to the teachers I had in the past. They were absolutely committed to their roles and my Afrikaans teacher who had the impossible task of finding a way to make it engaging for me certainly went above and beyond. I think the methodology or paradigm the schools in South Africa follow is not conducive to learning let alone mastering a second language. I think the teachers were good but that their hands were tied. If at the end of the primary and secondary school journey average schoolchildren who’ve sat through a decade of weekly language classes can’t hold a conversation then something is very wrong. I don’t believe this is being examined enough at South African schools.
Being in a language school in China, I’ve met many international students who speak fluent english as a second language that they learned in high school. I’m dumbfounded by how easily it seems to have been accomplished elsewhere. It is as if people simply attend high school and leave with a second language. What is perhaps sad to think about in South Africa is that we need better fluency in addtional languages not just to facilitate communication between people but also to increase cultural and historical appreciation. The window through which I view and explore China grows everyday and enriches my appreciation of every experience. I wish I had this in my home country. It is through this wish that I realised a major obstacle stood in my way. Even if I wanted to learn Shangaan or another official language of South Africa it is near impossible.
It is easy to walk into a book store in Johannesburg and find books on how to learn Spanish, French, and of course Mandarin. But as a language learner I know that books are only part of the puzzle. If I wanted audio tapes for those aforementioned languages they are also available. What’s more there are free apps I can download that will give me introductions and take me to end of beginner level using the latest technologies for effective language learning. Almost entirely for free.
Why don’t we have this in South Africa? Why isn’t there an ongoing project by government to hire the Pimsleur or Michel Thomas people to make beginner, intermediate, and advanced tapes for all eleven languages? It wouldn’t be that big an undertaking and would only really need to be done once.
There is software like Anki which are a free spaced repetition flashcard apps that was invaluable for learning. A very useful approach for learning Mandarin is to increase your vocabulary by learning characters and words from frequency lists. A frequency list is an ordered list of the most common words form a language. Learn the first 1000 and you’ll cover a huge percentage of what is spoken daily. They’re not perfect but knowing the words helps one focus on catching them while listening and allows for focus on grammar in real life situations. As a start we should provide free flash card lists of the top 1500 words and definitions for each of our languages. Definitions in English and and English cards with definitions in all 10 remaining languages.
The goal here would be to reduce the friction or inertia required to gain a foundation in local languages. I don’t suspect it would be hugely popular but it is an important point of departure and it fills a necessary gap. If we want to live in an equal society with a variety of cultures that have their own languages we should be doing what we can to facilitate communication. I would additionally add lessons in Shona and Mandarin because of the proximity and ever growing significance.
Like many of classmates I left high without the ability or confidence to speak Afrikaans or any other second language. We missed a crucial opportunity in our lives where our brains were geared for the uptake of additional languages. Even if all I had the end of high school was a dictation test of the first 1500 words in Afrikaans, Zulu, or any of the others I would’ve perhaps been better off now.
Maybe as a final incentive, we could have a proficiency tests and give tiny tax incentive to anyone who commits to learning the lists or passes a simple ten minute conversation test.
The more I think about it the more I think it is an essential missing part of modern South Africa.